Originally Reviewed – 7/9/2012
Ten years after the critical and commercial failure that was Batman and Robin, Warner Bros. handed over the shattered franchise to writer Davis S. Goyer (Blade) and relatively unknown English director Christopher Nolan. Known mostly for psychological thrillers like the impressive Memento and Insomnia, Nolan had critical cred but had never helmed a large production. Undaunted, Nolan sought to return the franchise to the darker, more personal tone of the original comic book vision. The result is a return to form for the Caped Crusader and while the film isn’t without fault and missteps, anything was going to be better than the Schumacher disaster. Seriously. Anything.
Doing what no film had successfully done before, Batman Begins is the true origin story of the Dark Knight. Starting with the death of his parents to his self imposed exile into the dregs of criminality, Bruce Wayne isn’t the smiling billionaire every other Batman film painted him to be. Wild, manic and out of control, Wayne finds direction in the tutelage of Ducard (Liam Neeson), a member of the League of Shadows. Here, Wayne hones his natural abilities and learns the ways of the ninja, a precursor to the crime fighting techniques inherent in the comic book Batman character. This sequence, which comprises of about 45 minutes of screen time, is interesting as an explanation of Batman’s skill set but doesn’t feel like a true Batman movie. As a result, the tone of the movie shifts in sometimes jarring ways as the movie transitions from the kung fu setup of the first third to familiar Gotham in the second.
Here is where we get a well rounded and more familiar Bruce Wayne. The setups of how he comes about his gear and gadgets are some of the best bits of the film, buoyed by the great work of Morgan Freeman as Wayne Enterprises scientist, Lucius Fox. Rather than the standard “super villain makes a mess” approach, Nolan’s Gotham is overrun by the mob, headed up by gangster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Of course, this wouldn’t be a Batman film without over the top villainy but here is where the film makes its biggest misstep. The bad guys include a mad psychologist who calls himself Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul. Scarecrow has the potential to be an entertaining and interesting villain but his limited screen time weakens the potential of the character. Ra’s al Ghul has the opposite problem. Despite many minutes of developments and plot twists, the character doesn’t do much of anything other than shout orders and exposition. For the first time in the film history of Batman, the villains take a back seat to the Dark Knight and while the character of Batman is helped greatly by this shift, the clashes lose something in the change.
That said, everything in the film sticks to the main theme, something that Nolan has done well as a filmmaker, sometimes to a fault. Underlying idea of becoming your fear in order to conquer it is well established and makes for an interesting experience. Luckily for Joe Shmoe filmgoers, there’s some fine action as well, highlighted by a heart stopping chase sequence in which Batman pilots a high speed tank called the Tumbler through the streets and rooftops of Gotham City. The hand to hand combat, a staple of the Batman character, is visceral yet flawed due to some ill advised “shaky cam” that pushes the envelope so far, I felt the need for a dose of Dramamine to counteract the effects.
Anyone who hasn’t seen this film is wondering one thing. How did Christian Bale do as the title character. Simply put, Bale’s Batman ranks second only to Michael Keaton’s original interpretation. Before fans of the new series label me as an old “fuddy duddy”, let me explain. Keaton’s Batman was the perfect expression of the duality of Batman. Bumbling billionaire by day, ass kicking vigilante by night, Keaton expressed the two sides of the character almost perfectly. Bale’s Batman does a great job of being “on theme” with the movie, but I found his “Back in Gotham” Bruce Wayne to be too cool and over the top. In this most recent viewing, I realized exactly by Bruce overcompensated when he’s not in the cowl and cape, but it doesn’t make the experience that less jarring. I will say that Christian Bale is easily the most electrifying action Batman, using his full physique to intimidate thugs and battle baddies. And no, I’m not going to make fun of Bale’s “Batman voice.” Despite how many jokes have been made at his expense, it works given the context of his training and approach to dealing justice.
When you boil it down to the prime components, Batman Begins is a true return to form for DC’s flagship franchise. Batman has always been the most cinematic of all comic book characters and Nolan’s dark, gritty and realistic depiction works as both fan service and a modern cinema hero. The essence of Batman is the story of a man trying to live up to his father’s legacy while conquering his own fears and Christopher Nolan captures this nicely in his first stab at the classic character. Despite some pacing issues and a pair of lackluster villains, Batman Begins hits on both the action and drama fronts, setting the table nicely for a new series for a new generation. Schumacher’s stain on the Batman name was forgotten forever once this film came out in the summer of 2005. And you know the best thing about this movie? Without it, we wouldn’t have the sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight. Worth every minute just for that.
Score – 80%